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A more sustainable approach to geotechnical investigations

30 Apr 2024, by Amy Sarcevic

Every year, millions of dollars are spent on new ground investigations, to assess the geology beneath prospective infrastructure developments. The majority of this data is held in libraries, digital archives, or online tender platforms, where it often gets misplaced or disposed of. Even data preserved in GIS-type databases can be elusive, given its fragmented nature and the lack of public access.

Winston Churchill Fellowship winner, Dr David Och, is advocating for a more sustainable approach to infrastructure development. He says banking geotechnical data in a central repository could help governments avoid overlap and duplication in investigational work, fast-tracking the development of projects and saving millions of taxpayer dollars.

“Currently, there is no requirement for government agencies to submit any geotechnical data from subsurface investigations into a central system, so it is all floating around in disparate locations and very difficult to access. If we were to formally integrate it, we could build an evolving geological model of Australia’s cities and regions, allowing infrastructure projects to develop quicker and at a much lower cost,” he said.

Although the nature of Australia’s subsurface is widely understood in city locations, it is less so in regional areas. As cities expand to accommodate population growth, there is a need to build a clearer picture below ground.

“As our societies grow beyond current limits, the geotechnical conditions are the governing and constraining factors that allow infrastructure to occur,” Dr Och said.

How would it work?

According to Dr Och, Australia already has the appetite and some of the necessary building blocks to develop such a system. He highlights that, over the years, many major infrastructure projects have contractually required the provision of geological, geochemical, and geotechnical datasets in digital format.

In 2022, the Sydney Metro Authority set a strong example, he argued, by uploading a substantial volume of ground data from the Sydney Metro Western Sydney Airport (SMWSA) line to a public database. “The volume and timeliness of this upload set a good precedent for others to follow,” he said.

Additionally, Dr Och highlights that some mandates and resources for geotechnical data archival are already in place. The Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV) requires ‘geotechnical investigation’ to be retained for at least 25 to 35 years, and there are a few databases nationally where such records could be kept. “In 2004, a geotechnical record was created for Perth, and the Geological Survey of Victoria (GSV) has a wealth of digital resources for geotechnical engineering,” he said.

However, for centralisation to occur, Dr Och says Australia would need to legislate a registry system and for data to be standardised, covering the full scope of geotechnical data. It would also need to mandate a format for government contracts requiring ground investigations, and develop criteria around the release of intellectual ownership. “If governments are procuring geotechnical investigations for their Works or Services, they would need to ensure they can retain custody of any data collected for them,” he said.

According to Dr Och, all of these criteria are achievable.

“We have seen similar models in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, and New Zealand and we know they are relatively inexpensive. Moreover, they are financially beneficial and can foster cooperation across sectors,” he said.

Join the debate

Talking more about his research on subsurface investigations for the Winston Churchill Fellowship, Dr David Och will present at the upcoming Australian Tunnelling Conference.

This year’s event will be held 14-15 May 2024 at the UTS Aerial Function Centre Sydney.

Learn more and register your place here.

About David Och

Dr David Och is the Technical Director – Geology (Tunnels) for WSP in Australia and leads the NSW Tunnels Group. He has expertise in tunnelling and engineering geology has undertaken lead and advisory roles on major transportation projects. He has been geotechnical lead for Sydney Metro City & SW and West Projects and geological lead on the Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link project.

David is a Churchill Fellow and has just completed a study on geotechnical databases at geological surveys including the BGS, TNO (Netherlands) Swisstopo and GEUS (Denmark). This work was published as a report through Winston Churchill Trust and a recent paper in Springer.

David has a PhD in geology and is an Associate Professor at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the UNSW. He supervises students in Honours degrees at Sydney University and Adelaide University, and lectures in tunnels and Landscape design at University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

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